Right now, our ineffectual President is not the highest-profile among those who would make slaves of free citizens; his incompetence as an executive has reduced him to a cynical, groveling faux populism. The highest-profile slaver is not a significant writer or intellectual of the Left; those who might be significant waste their time performing on cable television minstrel shows. It’s not an internet or New Media big-shot; they’re more interested in feuding than influence.
Right now, the highest-profile collectivist in America is a woman named Elizabeth Warren. A Harvard Law School professor and aspirant to elected office in Massachusetts, she combines the President’s cynicism with the intellectual Left’s focus on cable TV performance and a strong internet presence. Her writing indicates a trivial, though eminently credentialed, mind; her body of work reads more like Suze Orman than Richard Posner or Lawrence Tribe.
If you follow the news or scan left-leaning media outlets, you’ve heard Warren’s name. If you live in Massachusetts, you know that she’s seeking Teddy Kennedy’s old U.S. Senate seat, presently occupied by Scott Brown. But the chances are that you, like most Americans who aren’t wild-eyed Maoists, have a vague impression of the woman.
But it’s important to clarify that vagueness. This woman reflects several current trends in American culture — most of which are not good.
She was born Elizabeth Herring in Oklahoma City in the late 1940s. It was the front end of the Baby Boom, but her childhood wasn’t Happy Days. When Elizabeth was a young teenager, her father had a heart attack and related health issues. These led to severe financial problems for the Herring family. They lost a car to the repo man . . . and fell out of what they considered the middle class. Her mother went to work as a telephone operator. Later, Elizabeth waited tables to help support the family.
She was bright. Did well in school. Got a debate scholarship to George Washington University in the nation’s capitol — and left Oklahoma. Quick as she could.
GW isn’t an intellectual mecca. The biggest part of its student body is made of underachieving kids from affluent families who pay full freight, leavened with some smart kids from hinterlands there on scholarship.
While still an undergraduate, Elizabeth married a classmate named Jim Warren. In 1970, she graduated with a degree in speech pathology. Jim pursued a career and established himself as a middle-class breadwinner; Elizabeth used her degree to get work helping children who were recovering from head traumas and brain injuries.
Various left-wing media outlets were entranced by the soft totalitarianism of Warren’s schoolmarm demeanor.
But that wasn’t satisfying. The collegiate debater felt drawn to something more ambitious. Law school. While having two children with Jim, Elizabeth cobbled together a law degree — starting out at the University of Houston and eventually finishing at the Newark campus of Rutgers. Along the way, she interned at a white-shoe Wall Street firm and was an editor of the Rutgers Law Review.
She got her law degree in 1976 and ran a solo practice in the New Jersey suburbs, focusing on wills and real estate closings. She taught Sunday school, reading and telling kids about Methodist founder John Wesley. She still cites Wesley as an inspiration.
In 1978, she and Jim divorced. That seems to have changed many things.
Elizabeth moved from practicing law to teaching it. She started at Rutgers and moved through short-term gigs at the University of Houston, Texas, and Michigan before getting a tenured position at the University of Pennsylvania. And, as she explains it, she began to change from a free-market advocate to a full-blown statist.
While her academic research wasn’t exceptional (more on that in a bit), she was a dynamic classroom instructor and popular with students. While Reagan and the elder Bush occupied the White House, she refined an approach that worked well in the university setting. The actual content of her writing and speaking is usually unexceptional; but she conveys — by demeanor and implication — sentiments that click with campus radicals. She signals progressive pieties that flatter students and colleagues, making them feel they aren’t just careerist clerks but Deep Thinkers interested in Profound Issues.
She moved from UPenn to Harvard in 1992.Today, she is the Leo Gottlieb Professor of Law, teaching commercial law and bankruptcy. She is or has been a member or officer of: the American Academy of Arts and Sciences; the American Law Institute; the Executive Council of the National Bankruptcy Conference; the Federal Depository Insurance Corp.'s Committee on Economic Inclusion; the National Bankruptcy Review Commission. As I’ve noted, she’s eminently credentialed.
She signals progressive pieties that flatter students and colleagues, making them feel they aren’t just careerist clerks but Deep Thinkers interested in Profound Issues.
Most university professors are expected to produce a steady stream of peer-reviewed academic articles and research papers related to their fields. Generally, law professors have some relief from this severity; because law schools are usually profit centers for their universities, law school teachers can focus on classroom teaching rather than driven academic publication. Still, a law professor is expected to produce — or at least contribute to — the occasional academic paper.
Here, Warren has had some trouble.
In 2005, she and several colleagues published a study in the academic journal Health Affairs on the relationship between medical bills and individual bankruptcy. They concluded that half of all families filing for bankruptcy did so in the aftermath of a serious medical problem and that 75 percent of those families had some form of medical insurance. This gave a lot of rhetorical ammunition to people vilifying “evil insurance companies” and calling for “health care reform.”
Some readers questioned the study’s methods. As a surprisingly good analysis from ABC News noted:
The Harvard report claims to measure the extent to which medical costs are “the cause” of bankruptcies. In reality its survey asked if these costs were “a reason” — potentially one of many — for such bankruptcies.
Beyond those who gave medical costs as “a reason,” the Harvard researchers chose to add in any bankruptcy filers who had at least $1,000 in unreimbursed medical expenses in the previous two years. Given deductibles and copays, that’s a heck of a lot of people.
Moreover, Harvard’s definition of “medical” expenses includes situations that aren’t necessarily medical in common parlance, e.g., a gambling problem, or the death of a family member. If your main wage-earning spouse gets hit by a bus and dies, and you have to file, that’s included as a “medical bankruptcy.”
So, the study was marred by the hacky left-wing politics that pass for “consensus” in many of the social sciences. (The University of East Anglia’s Climate Research Unit caused a similar controversy when it filled its reports on global warming with comparable manipulations.)
While academic research isn’t her forte, Warren has shown greater enthusiasm for more popular fare. She has co-authored (with her daughter, Amelia Tyagi) two consumer books on personal finance, All Your Worth: The Ultimate Lifetime Money Plan and The Two-Income Trap: Why Middle-Class Mothers and Fathers Are Going Broke. The books offer useful, if basic, financial advice. They read like personal-finance versions of celebrity cookbooks — people who come to the books because they like Warren probably find them worth the price; others probably don’t. In its review of The Two Income Trap, Time magazine wrote: “For families looking for ways to cope, Warren and Tyagi mainly offer palliatives. . . . Readers who are already committed to a house and parenthood will find little to mitigate the deflating sense that they have nowhere to go but down.” Like most of the establishment media, Time has been generally favorable to Warren in other contexts.
In the mid-2000s, Warren and some of her Harvard law students wrote a column called Warren Reports for the popular left-wing internet news site TalkingPointMemo.com. Warren Reports purported to be a deep-think collaboration like the libertarian-leaning opinion site Volokh Conspiracy; it ended up being less deep analysis and more hacky partisan spin.
But Warren’s hacky politics found an audience. On November 14, 2008 — days after Barack Obama had been elected president — she was appointed by Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid to chair the five-member Congressional Oversight Panel created to oversee the implementation of the Emergency Economic Stabilization Act and its main product, the Troubled Assets Relief Program (TARP).
In other words, Warren oversaw the Wall Street bailout.
Through her term as chair, the Congressional Oversight Panel released monthly reports that evaluated the bailout and related programs. These reports — and videos that accompanied them — served as bully pulpit for Warren. She focused her regulatory enthusiasms on topics including: bank stress tests, commercial real estate, consumer and small business lending, farm loans, financial regulatory reform, foreclosure mitigation, government guarantees, the automobile industry, and the impact of TARP on financial markets. She also testified frequently before House and Senate committees.
From these unlikely venues, a star was born. Various left-wing internet news sites and new media outlets linked to her videos and reported on her congressional testimony. Like the campus radicals at UPenn and Harvard, they were entranced by the soft totalitarianism of her schoolmarm demeanor.
Throughout her various congressional testimonies and internet videos, Warren advocated for the creation of a new Consumer Financial Protection Bureau. In a December 2009 interview with Newsweek magazine, Warren said:
To restore some basic sanity to the financial system, we need two central changes: fix broken consumer-credit markets and end guarantees for the big players that threaten our entire economic system. If we get those two key parts right, we can still dial the rest of the regulation up and down as needed. But if we don't get those two right, I think the game is over. I hate to sound alarmist, but that's how I feel about this.
(Reread that last sentence, keeping in mind the famous negotiating aphorism: “Everything before the ‘but’ is a lie.”)
This quote embodies two essential traits of Warren’s political persona.
First, she identifies important issues but comes to illogical conclusions about them. She’s right that moral hazard had dulled the capital markets; government guarantees for banks that are too big to fail inexorably leads to more failure. But she doesn’t seem to understand her own point. She wants more well-intentioned regulation to cure the problems caused by previous well-intentioned regulation.
Second, she leads with her heart — which is good in love letters but not so great in governance. Most of her public policy statements are full of prefaces, parentheticals and sidebars about how she feels about things.
One challenge for a politician who has lots of stupid people cheering for her everywhere she goes is to avoid losing any connection to reality.
In time, Warren got her new (and additional) consumer protection agency. The Frank-Dodd Wall Street Reform and Consumer Protection Act, signed into law in July 2010, created the United States Consumer Financial Protection Bureau — which some in the Obama administration hoped would grow as large and powerful as the FBI.
Warren’s growing legions of collectivist supporters wanted her to be named head of the new bureau. She wasn’t. Some collectivists saw this as apostasy on Obama’s part — he’d caved to the Wall Street establishment by not appointing the woman who’d supervised the bailout of the Wall Street establishment. Others collectivists blamed “the Republican congress” for blocking her ascent.
Warren settled instead for the consultative position of “Special Advisor” to the Bureau. Which she kept for less than a year, when she quit to launch her U.S. Senate campaign. On her way out, she issued a farewell statement (surely one of the few Special Advisors to a non-cabinet-level agency ever to do so) that read, in part:
Four years ago, I submitted an article to Democracy Journal that argued for a new government agency called the Financial Product Safety Commission. I felt strongly that a new consumer agency would make the credit markets work better for American families and strengthen the economic security of the middle class. I leave this agency, but not this fight . . . the issues we deal with — a middle class that has been squeezed and business models built on tricks and traps — are deeply personal to me, and they always will be.
Again, rich subject matter and a jabberwocky conclusion. A “new government agency” will make credit markets “work better for American families”? Not likely. The lesson of the subprime mortgage collapse and the current recession is that statist abominations like the Community Redevelopment Act, TARP (the Wall Street bailout which, it bears repeating, Warren administered) and Fannie Mae/Freddie Mac create moral hazard and obstruct market efficiency.
And, again, the pabulum about her “deeply personal” feelings. Warren’s feelings are a big part of her public persona — as big as policy details or the effects they have on objective reality. This is an unexpected focus for a law professor. But Tip O’Neill would understand. Feelings work well at the retail political level. Paste-eating collectivists put maximum importance on “personal narratives”; they care less about logic or objective reality.
Warren has peddled her emotions with some success in the popular media. She appeared several times on the Dr. Phil TV show. She’s been a recurring guest on The Daily Show. She talked about Wall Street greed in Michael Moore’s documentary Capitalism: A Love Story. And she’s a staple on less popular TV talk shows hosted by the likes of Charlie Rose, Bill Maher, and Rachel Maddow.
Her focus on “personal narrative” also plays into some au courant gender-studies topics. But in a way that doesn’t play out well for gender equality. In short, some on the American Left believe that women prefer narratives to facts . . . and these types applaud Warren’s constant drumbeat of “feelings” that are “deeply personal” to her. But lost in all this postmodernism and academic jargon is the ugly and ancient assumption that women aren’t up to analysis of objective reality.
When Warren jabbers on about deeply personal feelings, she’s not so much different than the notorious talking Barbie doll who complained, “Math is hard!”
For those who are inclined to like Warren, these things don’t matter. They don’t even register. A quick survey of the reader comment sections of left-leaning internet news sites finds the following:
(from the Huffington Post)
(from the Daily Kos)
In many ways, these comments are typical of political commentary of all political stripes on the internet. Personality-driven. Egocentric (note how many of the comments start with and focus on the “I” of the commenter). Infantile. At their best, such sentiments can be charming; at their worst, they’re moronic.
And, when Warren is observed in this light, she begins to resemble someone her fans at the Huffington Post and Daily Kos ritually hate: Sarah Palin.
On the surface, Warren is a sort of anti-Palin. Dowdy. Scolding. Harvard professor. Twice-married (the second time to a deferential fellow Harvard professor). Credentialed. Elitist.
But dig a little deeper. Oklahoma native. Scholarship student at a third-tier college. Married at 19. Less-than-gilded law school at University of Houston and Rutgers-Newark.
She’s like Palin in significant ways. They both have built bases of popular support on checkered histories in public service; they both welcome the biases and preconceptions of their supporters.
Here’s an illustrative anecdote: When I told one lefty acquaintance that I was surprised an academic of such modest background had advanced so far, my acquaintance replied indignantly: “What are you talking about? Elizabeth Warren went to Harvard.”
Warren fairly cried out for libertarian scrutiny with one recent quote. A supporter filmed some video of the candidate speaking at a fundraising event. Asked about the president’s ineffective attempts to raise taxes on the wealthy, Warren said:
I hear all this, “You know, well, this is class warfare. This is whatever.” No! There is nobody in this country who got rich on his own. Nobody! You built a factory out there? Good for you! But I want to be clear: You moved your goods to market on the roads the rest of us paid for. You hired workers the rest of us paid to educate. You, uh, were safe in your factory because of police forces and fire forces that the rest of us paid for. You didn’t have to worry that marauding bands would come and seize everything at your factory and hire someone to protect against this because of the work the rest of us did.
Now, look: You built a factory and it turned into something terrific or a great idea, God bless! Keep a big hunk of it. But part of the underlying social contract is you take a hunk of that and pay forward for the next kid who comes along.
The video became a sensation on the internet. Collectivists cheered Warren’s “full-throated” arguments for wealth redistribution.
But reread the quote — it’s not quite that. It’s a poorly-made argument about externalities.
Like a debater who knows she’s making a weak argument, Warren picks the easiest points to support her case for a social contract. Only the most rigid anarchist would deny legitimate externalities like roads and reasonable law enforcement. Those aren’t the things that are bankrupting America. Welfare programs, subsidized mortgages, “free” public services and defined-benefit pensions are the problems.
The promiscuous enthusiasms of Warren’s fans lead them to some genuinely bizarre conclusions.
As far as her talk of workers that the collective has paid to educate, Warren needs to talk to some actual employers. The failure of the American elementary and secondary education system is driving some firms to look abroad and in some cases relocate for competent employees.
Lastly, the notion of “pay it forward” as part of a social contract is dubious. A social contract should more modest than her ambitions for investment in future outcomes. Support of externalities and infrastructure aren’t about paying it forward — a phrase that has developed a popular connotation of karmic debt that people today owe people in the future — they are about paying for external goods in the here and now.
Warren’s fans aren’t likely to hear any of this, of course. In fact, their promiscuous enthusiasms lead them to some genuinely bizarre conclusions. Here’s what one halfwit fan wrote about Warren’s “pay it forward” quote:
She's wonderful, and dead on with her comments about public investments enabling private success. But she's wrong about "debt" and the national "credit card". Money is a public monopoly. The primary way it comes about is thru federal deficit spending. And US dollars precede US Treasury debt. So there is nothing for children or granchildren to pay back, and there is no "hole" in the budget.
A challenge for a politician who has lots of stupid people cheering for her everywhere she goes is to avoid losing any connection to reality. Life in an echo chamber can lead to bad choices.
Recently, the Daily Kos ran an adoring article on Warren that included a picture of a room full of lumpenprole women and pear-shaped men, cheering on their majestic crusader. To that crowd, and later to several media outlets, Warren bragged that she was the spiritual founder of the Occupy Wall Street protesters. “I created much of the intellectual foundation for what they do.” And:
. . . no one understands better what the frustration is right now. The people on Wall Street broke this country. And they did it one lousy mortgage at a time. It happened more than three years ago, and there has still been no basic accountability, and there has been no real effort to fix it. That’s why I want to run for the United States Senate. That’s what I want to do to change the system.
The National Republican Senatorial Committee jumped on that, issuing a quick press release noting that some of “her Occupy acolytes in Boston” had fought with the police. And ended up in chains.
At the same time, some wild-eyed Occupy Wall Street protesters have demanded that Warren “repudiate” — a totalitarian word — Obama’s bailout of big investment banks (which, again, she oversaw) before they will support her bid for the U.S. Senate. Doesn’t seem like a nice way to treat the lady who created much of their intellectual foundation.
Warren invites this lunacy. By throwing in with the Maoist protesters, she’s likely to have marginalized herself.
There’s a whole year in which candidate Warren’s signals to campus radicals will come back to haunt her. At the Daily Kos, people who “love” Warren are begging her to run for president, in 2016 if not sooner.
A rational person can only hope their love for Warren will be fleeting, just as their love for Obama was. In the mean time, the woman who oversaw the Wall Street bailouts will have talked a lot about her deeply-held feelings. And inched free people who build factories or have great ideas a little closer to slavery.